Why Tending Your Career Is a Lifelong Pursuit

A former global head of HR turned executive coach offers up some savvy career advice. His best tips: take control of your professional life, don't become too comfortable in what you're doing, and get mentally tough. Let's go inside the current state of career management thinking.

March 8, 2017 – It’s easy to get comfortable in your career, especially when all is going well. But James G. Ward, an executive coach, corporate consultant, and author of ‘New Directions,’ a newly published guide to career management, said that could be a big mistake.

Gone are the days when someone might spend decades perhaps even an entire career, at a single company. And if any lessons were learned in the fallout from the Great Recession, it is that no job is 100 percent safe and no one will attend to your career interests better than you.

“The reality is that we as individuals have to take control,” said Mr. Ward. “You’re really the CEO of your own company. And you have to make those CEO decisions that are in the best interest of you and your career. If it works with one particular employer for a long period of time, that’s great. But often it doesn’t, and these days you see people having multiple careers, even different professions, in their lifetime.”

A Rolling Stone

Career planning, according to this former human resource executive, goes far beyond simply getting a job. “It’s a lifelong endeavor,” said Mr. Ward. “And career planning and career strategies are part of life.”

The financial sector is where Mr. Ward made his career. He was head of human resources, Asia Pacific, for the investment bank Salomon Brothers and global head of HR for Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO), among other roles.

Mr. Ward, who lives in Newport Beach, CA, left the corporate world in 2010, and has been working as a consultant ever since. In addition to executive coaching, he keeps his hand in talent management as well as executive compensation work with a focus on investment management. He earned his certification as an executive coach through a year-long program at Columbia University.

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In his early days in human resources, Mr. Ward said he would often be skeptical when he received a resume from someone who had held several jobs, a few years here, a few years there. “I’d say, ‘They’re a rolling stone; I don’t want to hire them; there’s no loyalty.’ Today, the average college graduate will change jobs twice in the first five years. It’s a different world.”

Consider a 40-year-old executive in financial services who found himself displaced eight years ago because of the economic crisis, said Mr. Ward. The industry has, in large part, been reshaped, particularly by outsourcing, and today there are simply fewer jobs to be had. After looking a couple years — if they could hold out that long — many had to face the facts that it was time for a change.

“For people who find themselves in that situation, it’s a good time to rethink what they’re going to do,” Mr. Ward said. “How do you take the skills that you have accrued over the last 15 or 20 years and redirect them into something that could potentially be of interest and financially rewarding and give you some personal satisfaction?”

The possibilities are endless. Mr. Ward tells of one friend, a technology executive who found himself unemployed after 20 years with the same company, who now happily runs a Mailboxes, Etc. store. Another individual he knows does contract marketing work, in which he’ll work for a year, then take a few months off before starting a new gig. For other people, the answer might be a job in a different field altogether.

‘Gigging’ as a Top Adaptation Strategy

As workers seek more flexibility and employers embrace agility in all facets of their organizations, contingent work will exert more and more influence over companies. As we head toward a fundamental shift in the composition of the workforce, companies will need to continue to adopt new strategies and integrate new technologies to engage external talent and turn it into a true business differentiator. But make no mistake, across the world the traditional notions of labor, work, and talent are being altered ….. Here’s some further reading from Hunt Scanlon Media.

Companies Reshaping Work Strategies
The ‘gig’ economy is the new approach to business structure and employment. Traditionally, employees have had a set schedule, a fixed salary, and worked at their employer’s location. ‘Gigging’ is dismantling the bindings on work expectations and allowing employees to set their own hours, availability and deliverables.

To get to that new place, however, you have to look ahead rather than back. Undeniably, losing a job can take a psychological toll. But Mr. Ward tells his clients it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nor is it uncommon for forces out of one’s control to leave even talented people hunting for work. Sometimes, it’s the economy. Other times, companies get sold. Or, businesses sell off or shutter divisions. There’s any number of scenarios.

Knowing When to Move On

And while it’s not unusual for people to dwell on asking, “Why me?” Mr. Ward sees little value in it. “I encourage people just to move on, see yourself as a commodity of sorts, that you’re a composite of a lot of different skills and life experiences,” he said. “The first step is to let go of the past and embrace the future.”

That starts with taking time to look inward and evaluate yourself and consider what you’d like to do moving forward. “It’s taking a serious internal look,” said Mr. Ward. “What are my skills? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? How do I repackage myself, rebrand myself? It’s a process that can take several weeks if not longer for some people.”

Gwen Sabo, co-founder of Olive Avenue Search in Burbank, CA, agrees that it is important for those who have been laid off or otherwise find themselves unemployed through no choice of their own to avoid rushing into the search for a new job. One’s financial situation plays a part, of course. How much time one takes depends on the individual. Maybe it is several weeks, or for some, several months.

But people need time to fully take inand adjust to the sudden change in their situation, which can be a shocking psychological blow. In short, job loss is a form of rejection, and it can leave a person unmoored. “You do change,” Ms. Sabo said. “And you are affected in a way you can’t imagine. When you’re in this state of mind, which is normal and appropriate, it’s not the best time to ask for a really important informational meeting, for instance, because you’re not at your best.”

So, catch your breath, she suggested. “Check in with what you’re feeling and what may come next. I promise that if you take the time to kind of feel how things are new and different and changed, you will be a far more effective job seeker and far more creative. You’ll also be much more attractive in your outreaches and in your presentations and thoughtful about how you frame the story of your availability.

Time to Reflect, Reinvent and Redirect

For many, that reflective time also helps people see that they weren’t completely satisfied with their job in the first place. Having some time away from working can be a tremendous opportunity to explore other career possibilities. “If you have a bit of a cushion and you’re prepared to go several weeks or months in this kind of retrenching mode, I’m going to bet that over 50 percent of the people say, ‘What else can I do?’” said Ms. Sabo.

And given that we’re in a more robust economy, there seems to be much more opportunity available. “This idea of repositioning, reinventing, redirecting is legitimate. We’re all living so much longer. We’re going to have a lot of jobs in a lifetime. So maybe this is a blessing. Maybe it’s a time to think what else one can be doing,” she added.

Once your future plans are ultimately decided, Mr. Ward then calls for a multi-pronged approach to make it reality: research, informational interviews, networking, and social media should all play a part. “Don’t just attack one avenue,” he said.

Challenges are going to come.

Perhaps most daunting will be those individuals who throw roadblocks in your path saying “No.” There might be a lot of them. “Don’t give up,” said Mr. Ward. “You’ll uncover lots of interesting things in your journey, but people need to accept that there’s going to be some rejection. Also, appreciate that it is a journey and will take time. Stick-to-itiveness and determination are so important. It’s not accepting defeat and moving forward with boldness and determination that will pay off in the end.”

Among the biggest mistakes those who are looking to reignite their careers make is to rely on tread worn, unsuccessful patterns of behavior. Mr. Ward tells of one out-of-work attorney he advised who only looked for positions through job boards, which got him nowhere. That client, he said, was averse to much social interaction and felt uncomfortable using his contacts and getting out in front of people. Following Mr. Ward’s advice, the lawyer jettisoned the job boards and made some adjustments that eventually helped land him a good position.

Workers Seek New Opportunities

According to a newly released survey by CareerBuilder, more than one in five workers are planning to change jobs in 2017. It also found that 35 percent of workers are regularly searching for new job opportunities, even though they’re currently employed. “Whether it’s unemployed people trying to find their way back to the workforce or those who are currently employed attempting an upgrade to greener pastures, a new year makes many people set their sights on job hunting,” said Rosemary Haefner, the organization’s chief human resources officer (CHRO). To keep your top workers, she suggested you keep a pulse on what they’re seeking and to poll your employees from time to time to learn more about their goals and motivations and how they want to be treated ….. Here’s some further reading from Hunt Scanlon Media.

Job Forecast Is Best In a Decade
The hiring outlook for 2017 is the best the U.S. has seen in a decade with two in five employers (40 percent) planning to hire full-time, permanent employees over the next 12 months. Three in 10 expect to hire part-time, permanent staff while half of all employers anticipate adding temporary or contract workers.

Time to Self-Review

But even when you are employed and content in your job, it’s essential to continually evaluate yourself and the direction your career is going, both short-term and long-term. That self-review could be quarterly or annually, Mr. Ward said, but take time to keep assessing your goals. Be loyal and respectful to your employer, of course, but pay attention to your own future as well. “Just understand that changes happen and you have to do what’s right for you,” he cautioned.

Too often, Mr. Ward explained, people lack a backup plan. Regardless of how long you have worked for an organization, it’s critical to know what you’ll do should the company be sold, for example, or your department or your job is eliminated.

Building a network, constantly improving and updating your skills, improving your professional standing in the market, even just updating your resume, are all part of being prepared. Even having a hobby, like carpentry or collecting art, could provide career options should circumstances change. “It’s about keeping yourself viable and not getting complacent,” said Mr. Ward.

Angee Linsey, managing director of Linsey Careers in Seattle, WA, which specializes in recruiting talent in marketing and communications, also provides career coaching services for those in the sector. She strongly agrees that it’s vital for individuals to tend to their careers when they’re actually in a job rather than scrambling to make up for lost ground when they are displaced.

Nurture your network, she said. But come at it from an honest, positive place rather than having selfish, ulterior motives. Many people detest the word “networking” and all the discomfort it can invoke. “So don’t call it networking,” she said. “Call it having meaningful conversations. Look for connections with people who you are actually interested in and hopefully they’re also interested in you. Those are the kinds of relationships that will help you and that will connect you with that future job.”

Strengthening those connections takes time and proceeding with intention. “Networking to me feels transactional,” Ms. Linsey noted. “I’m talking about relationship building over the long term. And that takes actual effort. I recommend that you take one hour a week and just spend time reaching out to people in your network. And I don’t care what you’re talking about. Connect with people because you’re genuinely interested in them as a human being or in their professional endeavors. Keep that network alive because you don’t want to reach out only when you need something.”

Don’t Let the Ship Sail Without You

Jobs can change fast. Technology is perhaps the greatest game changer. Too many people keep their head down and focus on the work in front of them and in the process fall behind the rest of the field. “Pay attention to the competitive landscape,” said Ms. Linsey. “This happened in marketing and communications over the last five years: Jobs that people did five years ago don’t exist anymore, and jobs that people are doing now didn’t exist five years ago, because of technology, social media; there’s so many factors. If that ship is sailing and you missed the boat, it’s going to be hard to catch up. If you have to take some night classes, or whatever it takes, stay current.”

Surrounding yourself with great talent will also make a big difference. Bringing in people who were brought up with digital technology is the most obvious example. “At the executive level, make sure you’re hiring ridiculously smart people below you,” said Ms. Linsey, “because the people that are coming up through the ranks are natives in skills that, let’s be honest, (older people) are not. As a company leader, I’m going to make sure the people I bring on know stuff I don’t know, so I can learn from them.”

Building one’s own brand is also part of the process. Mr. Ward encourages clients to keep a journal to help synthesize their feelings and thoughts. Identifying your values and how they translate to your work also helps you hone in on how you see yourself as well as how you want the world to see you.

“It’s the attributes that you want to display,” he said. “It’s behaviors. Let’s say you’re a forensic accountant and you pride yourself on being a thought leader. How do you get that brand out from a messaging standpoint? Maybe you’re going to take a leadership role in your professional association. Or internally at your organization, maybe you’ll volunteer to lead projects. It’s getting that outward message out.”

Be Mentally Tough

Mr. Ward himself is a triathlete, which informs much of his thinking about job hunting and career management. He’s far from the best athlete in any given triathlon, he admitted, but he thrives on the competition and the psychological stamina it demands and helps develop. There’s also something to be said for the discipline and perpetual effort that’s required to improve.

“I’ve learned through my recreational interest in triathlons what it means to be mentally tough,” he said. “And I think that’s very important in career planning and career strategy. When you think about successful athletes, they didn’t get where they are just through a lackadaisical, haphazard approach to their training. With job hunting, you have to approach it in the same way that you approach an athletic endeavor.”

“If you’re 45 years old and you’ve been displaced and you’re in transition trying to find your next opportunity, you have to be mentally tough because it’s a challenging world. You may find that you get that next opportunity right out of the gate. But other times it’s six, eight, 12 months. You have to be mentally tough.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief — Hunt Scanlon Media

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